Tubers' cultural roots drying out in Peru
By Laurent Belsie | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
CUZCO, PERU - Roughly 8,000 years ago, farmers here in the Andes sparked
a revolution in food. They began domesticating wild tubers
that grew on the mountain slopes and high plains of what is now Peru and Bolivia. They bred yellow ones and white ones, fat ones and
skinny ones, and gave them memorable names: "Flat like a cow's tongue," "Like a woman with the colors of a condor's neck," and "Makes
the daughter-in-law weep."
The result: the potato, which has spread to nearly 150 countries and has
quite literally changed the course of history. Yet, far from being
immortalized, these venerable native varieties are being forgotten. Technology, urbanization, and market forces are pushing them aside with
modern, cheaper cross-bred varieties.
As a result, Peru is draining a gene pool of potatoes that one day may
play a crucial role in breeding. Equally troubling, it's deflating, bit
bit, mountain traditions that have lasted millennia. Researchers are trying to reverse the decline, but their success may depend on
consumers rather than farmers. So far, the prognosis isn't good.
"We don't have a market for these potatoes," says Ramiro Ortega Dueñas,
director of the Regional Center for Andean Biodiversity Research
at San Antonio Abad National University of Cuzco. "The culture is being lost."
Equating native foods with culture may sound quaint. In the Andes, however,
faith and food, people and potato, are tightly bound. Simply
put, rural farmers invented the potato, which in turn fed even the humblest of them.
You've come a long way, 'spud'
The relationship began no later than 6000 BC, when researchers believe
natives first domesticated the wild tuber around Lake Titicaca, the
border between modern Peru and Bolivia. By the time Spanish conquistadors came along in the 16th century, the potato was the staple of
the Andes. It was the stuff of legends, such as the "Baked Potato Gleaner," a god covered in dirt but endowed with inner magical power.
Today, farmers still offer potatoes to their deities before they plant.
And until recently, mothers in villages all around the Andes used the
variety called "Makes the daughter-in-law weep," to test prospective wives for their sons. Women who could peel the nubby tuber were
considered worthy. But the potatoes are so bumpy, the most determined young women could be reduced to tears trying.
The potato spread internationally soon after the Spanish conquest. It arrived
in Europe in the latter half of the 16th century, probably through
Spain. But getting them to Europe proved a lot easier than getting them into Europeans.
The first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica called them "demoralizing."
To keep them out, Britons set up the Society for the Prevention of
an Unwholesome Diet - one explanation for the nickname "spud." Bit by bit, everyone realized their potential: Potatoes could produce more
food more quickly on smaller plots than any other major crop at the time.
Today, potatoes are the world's fourth most popular crop (after wheat,
corn, and rice). They produce more edible material than humans'
annual catch of fish and slaughter of livestock - combined. They're also used to make starch, paper, adhesives for textiles, cosmetics, and
But here in Peru, the potatoes that started the revolution are falling
into disuse. "Little by little, these species are under threat of genetic
erosion," says Merideth Bonierbale, head of crop improvement at the International Potato Center in Lima.
The reason: Farmers in the Andes find it more profitable to grow improved
varieties. No one knows how many species have been lost, but
evidence of decline looms everywhere. At the Wanchac market here in Cuzco, for example, Nelida Quispe Caseres sells a dozen varieties
of potatoes. When her mother first started selling here 20 years ago, the market was full of native varieties with different seasons and
colors. Now, she only sells three native varieties, she says, "mostly because of the price." Customers are much more attracted to modern,
improved potatoes, which they can buy for about 30 cents per kilo (2.2 pounds). Native varieties typically cost 40 percent more.
These varieties won't go extinct. The International Potato Center maintains
a gene bank with some 8,000 different potato specimens, half of
them from the Andes. But storing genes in test tubes, while vital for future crossbreeding, doesn't allow native varieties to adapt to new
Let me introduce you
Researchers are anxious to find ways to reintroduce native potatoes to
rural communities. The International Potato Center, for example, has
reintroduced about 1,000 varieties of native potatoes into 18 indigenous communities in the past four years. But the real breakthrough will
come if researchers can find a way to market the colorful native varieties. The International Potato Center is working with an entrepreneur
who makes a processed puree mostly from a native yellow potato. There's continual interest in getting Peru's gourmet restaurants to offer
seasonal native varieties.
The biggest hope lies with the native potato chip. Because some varieties
contain various colors, they create interesting designs when
sliced thinly. "We are looking for varieties that stay light-colored when fried," says Dr. Bonierbale of the potato center.